I had an unusual interaction with the choir teacher at our local Middle School recently. It could have gone very, very badly if she was a petty, small-minded person, but I discovered that she is actually an absolute gem. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
Earlier this week, there was a mandatory meeting for 7th grade Boys Choir parents at the Middle School. Our whole family attended to learn about a great upcoming performance opportunity that the choir is going to participate in this year. This performance will include an overnight stay in Dallas, and the choir teacher was talking about the expenses for the trip. She was specifying the cost of the hotel rooms when she said something that really shocked me. “I really Jewed them down on the price of the rooms.” I couldn’t believe what I had heard until my sweetheart confirmed it for me. He knows that it really gets my blood boiling when people use phrases like that.
It may be that my liberal, diversity-conscious upbringing in the Pacific Northwest makes me more sensitive to this than your average Texan. Nevertheless, I left the meeting early, shaking my head and upset that an educator, a teacher that my kids really enjoy and respect, had used this term. I considered speaking with her after the meeting, but I thought it was unlikely that there would be enough privacy to discuss this without embarrassing her (or my kids for that matter) so when I got home I sent the following email.
I left the parent meeting this evening early as I was very offended. Though you may not have thought anything of it, using the term “Jewed them down” to indicate that you bargained for a better price was an ethnic slur. That type of characterization and choice in language is offensive, and is not what I expect from an educator. [Our school district] is better than that. Our kids are better than that. YOU are better than that.
Comments have consequences. Our children look to you as an example of how to behave, what to say, and what to believe. Please choose your words more carefully in the future.
I signed it with my name, and hoped that I would get a reply. In fact, she called me the next day. You could have knocked me over with a feather! I was anticipating resistance, or an accusation of being too uptight, or even a “How dare you!?” Instead, she explained that she was very upset by my message, and had consulted with a colleague of hers as she really didn’t understand at first why I found this offensive. She said that upon discussing this at length with her colleague, who asked her something to the effect of, “Oh, tell me you didn’t say that,” she understood why this was a poor choice of words. She actually thanked me for bringing this to her attention, as she had learned something from this. I wholeheartedly accepted her apology, and I was very impressed with her candor and willingness to accept another point of view. It is rare in this day and age that anyone, especially someone in a position of respect and authority in the community, would do some soul-searching and apologize rather than tender an excuse or go on the offensive. Color me impressed!
This got me to thinking about other phrases that people use blithely in casual conversation, without realizing their ethnic origins, some potentially offensive, and some not.
“What a gyp!”
The word “gyp” is a colloquial shortening of the word “Gypsy” and is a derogatory term for the Romani people, who are sometimes characterized as duplicitous and underhanded.
This one is very interesting: The term comes from the tumbling walls of Jericho, and their instability. It does not come from the derogatory nickname for Germans coined in WWII, as many people believe.
Cultural misunderstanding between Europeans and Native Americans is the origin of this phrase. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, while the Native Americans believed they were engaged in bartering: this resulted in the Europeans finding Native American behavior dishonest and insulting.
A French kiss is so-called because at the beginning of the 20th century the French had a reputation for more adventurous and passionate sex practices. Interestingly, in France it is sometimes referred to as baiser florentin (“Florentine kiss”).
This phrase is derived from enmity between the English and Dutch, indicating that a treat from a Dutchman is not a “treat” at all, since one has to pay for himself.
Welch on a Deal
This has its roots in England, whose citizens considered the Welsh to be a substandard people, and regarded them as thieves and liars. Remember this old nursery rhyme?
Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief;
Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef;
I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy wasn’t in;
I jumped upon his Sunday hat and poked it with a pin.
Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a sham;
Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of lamb;
I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was away,
I stuffed his socks with sawdust and filled his shoes with clay.
Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a cheat,
Taffy came to my house, and stole a piece of meat;
I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy was not there,
I hung his coat and trousers to roast before a fire.
The Goths were actually a Germanic people who lived in Eastern Europe c.100 C.E. Europeans used the word “Gothic” as early as the 17th century to suggest horror and mystery, as the Goths were considered a frightening and enigmatic people. Since then it has come to mean anything spooky or strange. As far as I know, the original Goths did not wear black eyeliner or listen to Emo music.
Chinese Fire Drill
The term goes back to the early 1900s, and is known to have been used in the U.S. Marine Corps in the 1940s, where it was often expressed in the phrase “as #@$%ed up as a Chinese fire drill” and generally is used to describe a situation that is chaotic or confusing.
“It’s Greek to me!”
This idiom for English speakers indicates that an expression is incomprehensible, either due to complexity or imprecision. (Having studied ancient Greek, I can tell you it is nothing if not precise!)